Next up on West Virginia’s fall hunting-season calendar is one that has as much to do with tradition as with putting meat in the freezer.
It’s the state’s muzzleloader season for deer, and its origins hark back to the days when the first European pioneers crossed the Allegheny Mountains to explore the western frontier.
“All you have to do is look at the [West Virginia University] mascot to see how strong the tradition for muzzleloader hunting is in this state,” said Paul Johansen, wildlife chief for the Division of Natural Resources.
“The modern muzzleloader season ties into West Virginians’ tradition and heritage. I think that aspect of it resonates with hunters and non-hunters alike.”
Today’s muzzleloader season bears scant resemblance to the one DNR officials put into place in 1978. The season was only three days long then, and it was a bucks-only affair open only to hunters who used flintlock rifles.
Today’s seven-day season allows hunters to use flintlocks, sidelock percussion-cap rifles or modern in-line percussion-cap rifles, which can be equipped with telescopic sights if the hunter so desires. Antlered bucks may be taken in any county that has a firearm season for bucks, and antlerless deer may be taken in any county that has an antlerless-deer season.
Asked if modern appurtenances might have robbed the muzzleloader season of some of its primitive-weapons mystique, Johansen admitted that might be the case.
“One has only to look over at the archery season to recognize the advances in technology that have taken places as we’ve passed through the decades,” he said.
“There’s nothing wrong with the new stuff, and lots of people hunt with it. At the same time, there are still people who stick to the more traditional side of archery and hunt with longbows and recurve bows. Same goes for the people who hunt during the muzzleloader season. Traditional flintlock and [sidelock] percussion-cap rifles are still a big part of the equipment used during that season.”
After its inception in 1978, the muzzleloader season was held in mid-December, immediately after the firearm season for antlerless deer. That changed in 2012, when DNR officials moved the antlerless season back a week and bumped the muzzleloader season into the earlier calendar slot.
The move proved unpopular — so much so that in 2018, the DNR switched the seasons back to their original slots.
Johansen said his agency made the 2012 swap in an attempt to react to “what we’d been hearing from hunters.”
“We’d been hearing that the muzzleloader folks wanted an earlier season,” he continued. “They thought they had been put into a portion of the calendar when the weather often wasn’t favorable for good hunting. For whatever reason, the earlier calendar slot didn’t catch on, so we adjusted it back to where it was.”
Last year’s muzzleloader kill of 4,870 represented an increase of 627 deer over the previous year’s harvest of 4,243. It would appear, however, that the calendar change didn’t trigger the increase. Hunters using muzzleloaders killed 636 whitetails during the early January “Mountaineer Heritage” season, and those deer accounted for the entire blackpowder harvest increase, plus a few.
Johansen believes this year’s muzzleloader hunt, scheduled for Dec. 16-22, will be “about the same as last year’s.” He added, however, that the outcome will depend heavily on weather conditions:
“Weather affects hunter participation; the more hunters we get, the higher the harvest will be. Based on preliminary data from the recent buck season, it looks like there might be a bit of a downturn, but I don’t anticipate any dramatic decline assuming we have good weather.
“I’m hoping we get some nice weather, maybe a light snow, that muzzleloader hunters can take advantage of.”
Hunters with proper licenses are allowed to take up to two deer during the muzzleloader season. They may even take two in a day, but only one of those may be an antlered buck. Despite the “primitive weapons” nature of the season, all hunters must wear at least 400 square inches of fluorescent orange clothing, same as any firearm season for deer.